The Death of James, the Brother of Jesus

Although mentioned several times in the New Testament, Jesus’s brother James remains a shadowy figure. He is named in the Gospel of Mark as one of Jesus’s four brothers along with Joses (“little Joseph”), Judas (Judah), and Simon (Mark 6:3). None of the four gospels report much, if any, participation by the brothers in the earthly mission of Jesus although the Gospel of John seems to presuppose a supportive, if uncomprehending, role for them (John 2:12, 7:3-10).

Despite such ambiguous beginnings, the brothers (and their mother, Mary) are cited in the Acts of the Apostles as being among the very first Christ-believing Jews to form a community in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14). Later, James inexplicably appears as spokesman for the group, seemingly filling that position after Peter had departed “to another place” (Acts 12:17). James then speaks for the Jerusalem community when Paul and other missionaries from Antioch come to discuss the admittance of non-Jews to the growing number of Christ-followers (Acts 15; the details of this “Apostolic Conference” are also given by Paul in his Letter to the Galatians 2:2-10; note also the reappearance of Peter). Paul encounters James once more, according to Acts, when Paul visits Jerusalem for the last time and is questioned by James regarding allegations that he has been telling Jews to abandon Torah observance (Acts 21:18-21).

Paul himself is a source of valuable information about James. It is through Paul that we know that James had a vision of the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:7). Though we have no details of the encounter in the New Testament, a second-century, apocryphal gospel known as the Gospel of the Hebrews, gives a narrative account of the episode. Paul also relates how he first met James (and Peter) in Jerusalem during a two-week stay several years after he had received his own vision of the risen Jesus (Gal. 1:19). Paul considered James to be one of the three “pillars” of the Jerusalem community along with Peter and John (Gal. 2:9).

Though the Letter of James in the New Testament is traditionally ascribed to James, the brother of Jesus, his authorship is doubtful. That being said, we come to the end of the information on James available to us from the New Testament. For more information, we must consult other historical works.

An account of the history of the early Christ-faith was prepared by a second-century, Jewish Christ-believer known as Hegesippus. His five-volume “Memoirs” apparently contained all sorts of information about the early church and its preaching. I say “apparently” because the work is mostly lost to us. A few passages from it were quoted by the fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea, in a text we do have. Fortunately, the Hegesippus passages preserved in Eusebius’s Church History are mostly about James.

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Early Christian Teaching on Same-gender Sex

Recently, the United Methodist General Conference for 2019 passed a controversial piece of legislation called The Traditional Plan which essentially affirms “the church’s current bans on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and officiating at or hosting same-sex marriage” (www.umnews.org). Supporters characterized the plan as adhering to “biblical” values. Members who supported a more liberal plan, called The One Church Plan, were disappointed and discouraged. Students, faculty, and staff on my campus have been asked to sign a petition by The Freedom Center for Social Justice that condemns the UM decision citing “Christ’s frustrations with religious conservatives” as a model for action.

Discussions such as the one being conducted in the United Methodist Church, and in many Christian churches, present an excellent opportunity to examine the history of the church’s teaching on same-gender sex. How and why did the earliest Christ-believers address these issues?

During the first decades of the movement founded in the name of Jesus, a small, Jewish sect took their message of Jesus’s messiahship and the imminent end of the age to other Jews and, eventually, to non-Jews throughout the Roman Empire. The original message was simple at first: Repent of your sins, be baptized, receive the Holy Spirit, and wait for the risen Jesus to return and bring about the Kingdom of God (Acts 2:36, 38).

When this message was eventually transmitted from Jewish mouths to non-Jewish ears it was adapted to a somewhat different culture with different requirements. Non-Jews belonged to a culture that was different in many ways from Judaism. For example, religion for non-Jews (pagans, polytheists) did not concern itself with personal beliefs but with ritual practice (known as “cult”): Worship the gods on time and in the right way and one’s religious obligations were satisfied. Jews, on the other hand, were concerned not only with proper cultic practice but with proper behavior as well. Behavioral standards were specified in the Torah (“instruction”; the first five books of the Bible). Christ-believing, Jewish missionaries who brought word of Messiah Jesus to non-Jews had to deal with the fact that non-Jews had no similar moral instruction, the result, they reasoned, of worshiping a variety of gods (“idolatry”). Greek and Roman philosophers did indeed debate moral issues and cultural behavior and often set standards that applied to their philosophical schools but these discussions were limited to the educated elite who had the wherewithal for such reflection. A cultural clash between Jew and pagan was impossible to avoid. In fact, it was already being reenacted everyday somewhere in the Roman Empire.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews had been scattered throughout the empire since before the second-century BCE. They met weekly in their synagogues where they read and discussed Torah and its ethical and moral requirements. It is a historical fact that significant numbers of non-Jews were attracted to the synagogues for this kind of teaching, having few other sources of moral and ethical instruction. Romans valued virtue (generally defined as controlling one’s passions) and it seemed to the non-Jews attending Jewish synagogues that instructions for living a virtuous life could be found in the Jewish Torah. It was largely through these non-Jews, called “God-fearers,” that Christ-believing missionaries reached out into the greater non-Jewish world with their message.

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Did the First Jewish Believers in Jesus Continue to Sacrifice at the Temple?

The question of whether the disciples of Jesus ceased sacrificing at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem following his death is one that comes up occasionally among scholars interested in understanding the very earliest form of Christ-belief. This question has come up again in a new book by Paula Fredriksen, When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation (Yale, 2018).

There is no question that all of the earliest believers in Jesus as the resurrected Son of God were Jews. That acknowledgment represents a seismic shift in modern scholarship toward reappraising Jesus’s Jewishness and taking his religio-cultural background seriously. Scholars now try to understand the things that Jesus said and did in the cultural context of first-century Judaism. Judaism in the first century was complex, not at all uniform. There were many ways of being Jewish at the time. Jesus began to mark out another way of being Jewish by the things he did and said and required of his followers. According to Jesus’s own “brand” of Jewishness, then, did he deem worship in the Temple in Jerusalem acceptable and did he teach others to do so?

The importance of this question is tied up with the events of Jesus’s last week in Jerusalem. Each of the four New Testament gospels suggests that Jesus came into conflict with Jewish Temple authorities who directed that Jesus be arrested, perhaps interrogated, and then handed over to the local Roman authority, Pontius Pilate, for judgment and execution. Scholars seek to understand how and why Jesus might have been perceived as hostile to the Temple, its priestly administrators, and even to Rome. All four gospels report that Jesus made a public display of overturning the tables of businessmen and tradesmen operating in the Temple courtyard (Mark 11:15ff and par.). What was the reason for this? Did Jesus reject the Temple and teach his followers to do so?

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When People Die, Do Their Souls Go to Heaven? What Did Jesus Say?

It is a common and comforting belief among many Christians that when people die, or at least when “good” people die, their souls go to heaven to be with God. Does that belief actually reflect the teachings of Jesus (or any first-century Jew for that matter)?

The afterlife was not so important in the ancient world as one might suspect today. Life in the present world was difficult enough and required all one’s effort as well as continuous attention to obtaining the necessary assistance from the gods in order to survive. Death was ever present. People died from ailments easily treatable today: infected scratches and wounds, colds and flus, malaria and worms. As a result, life expectancy was about 40 years for a man, somewhat less for a woman. Women began having children early because as many as half of all children died before the age of five. Women often died in childbirth and many men and women had multiple husbands and wives over the course of their lives. As many as a third of women were widows at any given time. The struggle to survive was paramount.

For most, the afterlife was not looked upon as a remedy or reward for living justly in this life. For non-Jews, one’s departed soul was often thought to reside in Hades with the god of the dead. This was not “hell” in the modern sense but a place of repose where the shades remained for all eternity. The separation of the human into body and soul was a Platonic concept derived from the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato and his student Socrates. It is a companion of the equally Platonic concept of a realm of perfect reality, what we might call heaven, juxtaposed against its imperfect shadow realm, our earthly world. Plato thought that souls faced a judgment resulting in reward or punishment. Some ancient eastern “mystery religions” advertised communion with its particular god in the afterlife as a benefit of membership.

Originally, Jews held the Biblical belief, not so different from non-Jews, that the dead reposed in a postmortem realm they called Sheol. There the nephesh, the essence of the human life, took up residence forever separated from God. It was not until a post-Biblical movement took root within Judaism that the hope of reward in the afterlife began to catch on.

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‘Tis the Season (for Miraculous Birth Stories)!

Most people are familiar with the basic elements of the stories of Jesus’s miraculous conception and birth as recounted in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke. Though there are numerous differences between the two stories (a fact not often recognized or acknowledged – see my posts Are the Nativity Stories of Jesus Based on those of John the Baptist?, Elements from the Christmas Nativity Display, and The Imagery of the Nativity), the authors of both gospels agree that Mary conceived Jesus without the participation of a human father. Both credit the missing ingredient to the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Jesus becomes, from the very start, a god-man: part human and part divine.

Stories of the birth of such god-men were in wide circulation throughout the Greco-Roman world at the time the gospels were composed. That is not to deny (or affirm) the reliability of the gospel narratives with regard to Jesus’s circumstances. But it cannot be ignored that the authors were writing their stories using well-known narrative forms and tropes. After all, both writers and readers of the gospels were Greco-Romans steeped in the culture of their day. They would have recognized the similarities (and the differences) in the stories which helped them to make sense of the profound interworking of the divine and the mundane.

One ubiquitous story of divinely initiated birth was that of Hercules (Herakles). According to one version (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4.9.1-10), Hercules’s mother, Alkmene, was impregnated by Zeus. In order to sleep with her, Zeus took on the physical appearance of her husband, Amphitryon, and entered her bedchamber. The erotic undertones of the story are enhanced by the fact that Zeus tripled the length of the night for the purpose of lovemaking although Diodorus cautions that this was not done out of sexual desire but to foreshadow the exceptional power of the child thus conceived. Um-hmm.

Not only did mythic heroes begin life by divine concupiscence. Highly revered philosophers, for example, were sometimes thought to have been miraculously conceived. Pythagoras, the sixth-century BCE Greek philosopher whose teachings were an essential seedbed for later philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, was also believed to possess a divine lineage. His story begins with another mythical hero, Ankaios, another son of Zeus who sailed with Hercules aboard the Argos to find the Golden Fleece. It is from the Ankaios family tree that Pythagoras descends. Others thought that the god Apollo directly fathered Pythagoras. Though this was considered doubtful by the fourth-century Arab Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus (Life of Pythagoras 3-9), he admitted that the soul of Pythagoras, at least, did come from Apollo. It was sent down from heaven to dwell among human beings. Pythagoras, according to Iamblichus, “was the most beautiful and godlike of those written about in history.”

Apollo also figures in the genesis of the fifth-century BCE Greek philosopher, Plato. According to three sources consulted by the third-century biographer Diogenes Laertius (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 3.1-2), Plato came close to not being conceived at all. His parents, Ariston and Periktone, were trying desperately but without success to have a child. About to give up, Ariston saw a vision of the god Apollo which he took to be a sign. He thereafter abstained from having sex with Periktone who, as a result, later conceived, it was assumed, utilizing the “divine sperm” (Origen, Against Celsus 1.37) of Apollo.

Divine parentage was by no means limited to philosophers. Alexander the Great, the fourth-century BCE Macedonian conqueror who made the entire Near and Middle East part of his Greek empire, could not possibly have had normal, everyday origins according to some ancient writers. Preserved for us by the first/second-century Roman biographer Plutarch (Parallel Lives, 2.1-3.2) is the story of Alexander’s direct begetting from Apollo. It happened like this: Philip II, the previous king of Macedon, looked through a crack in the door of his sleeping wife’s bedchamber and saw a huge snake wrapped around her naked body. Repulsed, and perhaps thinking it was an omen, he sent representatives to the oracle at Delphi to inquire of the god Apollo what the imagery might portend. The response was that Philip should begin worshiping Zeus above all other gods and put out his own eye that had spied on Apollo, in serpentine form, mating with his wife Olympias. Olympias herself later recounted this sexual liaison to her semi-divine son, Alexander, and charged him to act worthily of his special beginnings.

Not to be outdone, stories of the Apollonian origin of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, flourished in Roman circles. Quoting the mysterious book Theologoumenon by the equally shadowy Asclepius of Mendes, Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars 2.94.4) says that the niece of Julius Caesar, Atia, once took up with a number of other women and visited the temple of Apollo to perform the customary rites. Staying late, they fell asleep in the temple. But it was Atia who succumbed to the erotic designs of a great snake who slipped up on her that night. In the morning, the irremovable markings of a snake appeared on her body. Nearly ten months later, she gave birth to Octavian (Augustus).

Early Jewish literature also featured stories of divine conception though these generally concerned elderly or barren women who had no further expectation of childbearing suddenly becoming pregnant. Among such stories in the Old Testament are the birth of Isaac to an elderly Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17-18, 21) and that of the twins Esau and Jacob to Isaac and the barren Rebekah (Genesis 25). The texts do not overtly credit God with inseminating either of these women but neither do they describe any further sexual activity between the parents leading to the miraculous conceptions. In fact, God tells Abraham, “I will bless her (Sarah), and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her…” (Gen. 17:16). The emphasis is on her reproductive abilities being rejuvenated not his. The same is true in Genesis 25:21: “Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.”

Things are clearer in a first-century Jewish recounting of the birth of the priest Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20). In the Second Book of Enoch, Nir, a priest, and his wife Sothonim, cannot have children because she was sterile. In her old age, she conceives but without the aid of Nir. Furious, Nir berates his wife for her (presumed) infidelity. She vainly professes her innocence but it was not until the angel Gabriel announced to Nir that the child, Melchizedek, was “righteous fruit” that Nir accepted the situation as divinely ordained. There is no question in this Jewish text that Sothonim conceived by divine insemination.

The third-century Christian theologian Origen recognized the similarities especially in the Greco-Roman divine-conception stories and those offered in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. But in typical exclusivistic fashion, he wrote off the non-Christian stories as “really fables (Greek = mythos).” He explained that “people just fabricate such things as this about a man whom they regard as having greater wisdom and power than most others.” It seems likely that Origen never stopped to consider that the same might have been done for the man he believed once possessed greater wisdom and power than others.

Did the Apostle Paul Really Tell Women to “Sit Down and Be Quiet in Church”?

The apostle Paul is blamed for many of the controversies affecting modern Christian belief and practice. Did he, for example, support the institution of slavery as some have insisted? Did he condemn homosexuality? Did he reject Judaism as a failed religion? Was he a misogynist who looked upon women as second-class human beings? Centuries of Christian teaching and tradition based on the New Testament letters attributed to Paul have resulted in answers to these questions that in many cases would have astounded the apostle.

Fortunately, this essay asks a question that is fairly easy to answer. In short, no, Paul was not a misogynist and did not tell women to sit down and be quiet in church. But before rushing to your Bibles to look up passages you swore contained instructions to the contrary, we need to examine how Biblical scholars have come to understand both Paul and the texts attributed to him in the New Testament. First, let’s first look at those offending passages, ostensibly written by Paul, that you were going to look up anyway.

The first is found in one of Paul’s letters to the Christ-believers in the city of Corinth. First Corinthians, chapter 14, verses 34-35 read: “Women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Seems clear enough. How can we deny what appears to be obvious? Before we address that question, let’s look at the next passage.

The second passage that relates to the silence of women in the churches is found in the first letter addressed to Timothy, a Christian missionary. First Timothy, chapter 2, verses 11-12 read: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” Seems to be in perfect agreement with what was written in 1 Corinthians above.

At first blush, these passages would appear to indicate that Paul wanted to issue a gag order on women in churches who felt motivated to ask questions, make comments, or even teach. The later church certainly understood Paul this way which is why it felt wholly justified in restricting church teaching, administration, and oversight to men. But was this really Paul’s position?

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Did Paul Really Say that Jesus Became “a Curse”?

Many things written by the apostle Paul have been deemed “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). One of the misunderstood passages by Paul is the one referred to in the title of this article.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians has been considered one of the most important for understanding Paul’s attitude toward Judaism and the Torah. He certainly says much about “works of the law” (he mentions it five times in this letter alone). His overall argument in this letter to his Gentile (non-Jewish) converts in the Roman province of Galatia is that they do not need to become circumcised in order to be saved from the coming wrath that the God of Israel was about to unleash on the world. A divine mechanism had just been put into place, according to Paul, by which Gentiles could join their fellow Jews in avoiding the wrath and entering into a new age, one ruled by God and administered by his messiah (Christ).

In Galatians, Paul explains how this mechanism works. Paul argues that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). There is a lot to unpack in this seemingly simple passage so let’s begin by determining the nature of the target audience and who “us” is.

It is imperative that when reading Paul’s undisputed letters (i.e., deemed authentic by all scholars) that we remember that he is writing to non-Jews (Gentiles). They are the targets of his mission: “James [the brother of Jesus], Cephas [i.e., Peter], and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Galatians 2:9). The Gentiles are polytheist (i.e., pagan) Greco-Romans.

When writing to these Gentiles, Paul employs a number of Greek rhetorical devices that would have been recognizable to his Gentile recipients (while, alas, they escape many modern readers). In this passage, Paul identifies with his collective audience, his Gentiles converts, by including himself among them. When Paul says that “Christ has redeemed us” he means “us Gentiles.” Paul, of course, is not a Gentile. But this technique of argumentation allows him to speak as if he is one of them. Keep in mind, too, that Paul is not writing to all people everywhere for all time. He is speaking to his Gentile converts in Galatia.

This makes sense because of what Paul says next. The “curse of the law” Paul implies they are under is not a curse for Jews. Jews have the law as part of their everlasting covenant with God. It is not a curse for them. On the contrary, it provides them with the means to live according to God’s will as a specially chosen people. The law can only curse them if they reject it. So who is cursed according to Paul’s Jewish understanding? Non-Jews! There are several passages in Hebrew scripture which provide the basis for this belief.

“Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deuteronomy 27:26). “But it shall come about, if you will not obey the LORD your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15). “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Cursed be the man who does not hear the words of this covenant that I commanded your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Jeremiah 11:3-4).”

By the time of Paul, there was an understanding among certain Jews that all the world’s people were responsible for keeping Torah but that only Israel had accepted it when it was offered. Be that as it may, it was a universal Jewish axiom that Gentiles were, by default, cursed (there were sometimes exceptions for so-called “righteous Gentiles” but these were very few in number).

Next, Paul says that Christ redeemed Gentiles from the curse of not abiding by the law by becoming accursed himself. How and why did Christ do that? Paul cites a passage from Torah that he believes refers to Christ (by the way, for those who argue that Paul rejected Torah, one must explain why he relies on it for every proof text he employs to support his arguments): “If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day – for he who is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Paul equates this passage with Jesus’ death on the cross (a “tree”). In this way, Jesus became accursed. Now that we have the “how,” it is time to address the “why.”

Paul has established that Gentiles are under a curse simply for being Gentiles. They have not accepted God’s law and this situation puts them under a curse. Jesus was executed by crucifixion, hung on a “tree,” and became cursed. But Jesus did not reject Torah. Nevertheless, by being hung on a tree he found himself rejected by Torah, accursed by the provision we cited above. That puts Gentiles and Jesus Christ, at least temporarily, in the same situation: they are all accursed. For that moment, Jesus has become like a Gentile. So now what?

Paul taught that God “raised Jesus from the dead” (Galatians 1:1). The curse Jesus fell under by way of his crucifixion was divinely undone, reversed. The cursed Jesus became the exalted Christ creating a pathway from curse to redemption that others could follow. To take advantage of this new possibility, Paul advised, Gentiles must baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

For Paul, then, the most important aspect of the life of Jesus Christ is this death-curse-redemption trail blazed for the benefit of the non-Jewish world, heretofore denied salvation other than by conversion to Judaism. It is this theological supposition that is at the heart of Paul’s entire missionary career. He brought this message to the non-Jewish world “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25). Then he believed the end of the age would arrive. By doing this, Paul believed he was fulfilling the prophecy of Hebrew scripture: “At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the LORD, and all the nations [i.e., Gentiles] will be gathered to it, to Jerusalem, for the name of the LORD; nor shall they walk anymore after the stubbornness of their evil heart” (Jeremiah 3:17).